A lot of people, including us, are talking about the disgraceful way a huge amount of hidden money is influencing the midterm elections through secret shell organizations. But what is also disgraceful is the way candidates for the U.S. Senate—challengers and incumbents alike—are hiding their own campaign finance information from the public. By failing to file their campaign finance reports electronically, candidates for the Senate delay by weeks the time before the public can access searchable information about who is contributing to their election.
Equally disturbing is the three- to four-day delay before information from FEC’s “48-Hour Notices” can be searched and sorted on the FEC’s website. These are notices that disclose really large contributions of $1000 or more that are made in the last days before an election. Think about it, candidates are required to file reports within 48 hours of receiving the contribution so that voters can judge, before they go to the polls, who the candidate might be beholden to if elected. But because the reports are not electronically filed, the information about these large contributions may not be available until after the election.
Presidential candidates as well as candidates for the House have been electronically filing their campaign finance reports for a decade. So why the delay for Senate reports? Because despite years of attempting to pass the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, a bill that would mandate electronic filing of Senate campaign finance reports, time and time again, the effort has been blocked. The blame lies mostly with Republicans, who insist that an unrelated poison pill amendment be voted on along with the bill. But the Democratic leadership has been unwilling to spend days of floor time that would be required to force a vote on the issue—a vote that would likely result in defeat of the poison pill and easy passage of the electronic filing measure.
The result is that rather than hitting “send” to deliver electronic reports to the FEC, Senate candidates either hand deliver or mail their reports to the Senate office of Public Records. (When they are mailed, they are delayed even longer because of requirements that all mail be irradiated before going into the Capitol offices.) After that, the reports are printed and delivered to the FEC, which must spend countless hours to key the information into its databases at a cost of $250,000 per year.
A legal mandate is not necessary, of course. If they were willing, Senate candidates could voluntarily file electronically with the FEC, but only a few, like Senators Feingold and Feinstein consistently do.
Since voluntary electronic filing is apparently something we cannot rely on Senate candidates to undertake, the law must be changed. Until then, we can expect more elections like this one, where hidden money from all sides is the norm.